The weekend’s big political story has been the controversy surrounding Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV)’s unfortunate remarks regarding then-candidate Barack Obama’s race during the 2008 presidential campaign, as reported in Mark Halperin’s new book. According to Halperin’s book, Senator Reid stated that America would be more receptive to Obama as president because he was “light-skinned” and did not have a “Negro dialect.” The new Republican attack wants to demand that Reid be treated the same as former Majority Leader Trent Lott, who was forced to resign after he commented that the country would have been better off had it elected segregationist candidate Strom Thurmond in 1948 and avoided all its subsequent problems. See Josh Marshall’s take here, as I think he has hit the nail on the head.
This is a purely false and specious equivalence. First, the statements themselves. Taken even without the broader context, Senator Reid’s comments were a compliment to President Obama. Make no mistake, his choice of particular words and terms was incredibly antiquated, not to mention unfortunate and bone-headed. Any insults were directed at white Americans who still harbor racist attitudes, who Reid believes (and he is no doubt correct) will have a less difficult time accepting a “light-skinned” African-American who does not speak like a stereotyped black person. For all the hoopla about Obama being the first black president, his is more a transitional racial achievement, since so many things about him seem to indicate his “whiteness.”
Sen. Lott on the other hand was complimenting Strom Thurmond, the man who set a record for filibustering for over 24 hours to stop the passage of the 1957 Civil Rights Act and never renounced his defense of segregation (all while having a child with a black maid). Senator Lott had the gall to claim that the country could have avoided all its problems if it had elected Strom Thurmond back in 1948. What problems, you say? Based on Thurmond’s record, any problems with black people and their “civil rights.”
Context, of course, matters. Sen. Reid, despite a prodigious list of other wince-inducing public statements, has no history of recorded racism. His scores as a legislator from the NAACP have been very strong. If this particular statement had not been made, there is little in his record that would suggest that Sen. Reid held racist attitudes. Sen. Lott, on the other hand, has a long record of support for Southern, Confederate causes, including some groups related to the KKK. His statement regarding Strom Thurmond only seems to confirm what seems to have been certain even if that statement had never been made.
Whatever other problems you may have with Sen. Reid, this ridiculous comparison needs to be put to rest immediately. (And as for these people commenting on the Times & Seasons thread regarding its designation of Sen. Reid as “Mormon of the Year,” they make me feel embarrassed to be an American and even more embarrassed to be Mormon.)